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Amid Quran Burning Outcry, Should All Blasphemy Be Banned?

Sweden’s desecration of Islam’s holy book has prompted a bid to burn the Bible. European evangelicals condemn the offense but link the freedoms of expression and religion.
Amid Quran Burning Outcry, Should All Blasphemy Be Banned?
Image: Loredana Sangiuliano / SOPA Images / AP Images / Edits by CT
Protestors in London raise the Quran during a demonstration against the Quran Burning In Sweden.

Swedish evangelicals fear a human rights retreat, as the fallout continues from last month’s Quran burning.

Earlier this month, Iraq expelled the Swedish ambassador after Swedish police authorized the burning of the Torah and the Bible in front of the Israeli embassy in Stockholm—though the Muslim applicant did not go through with it.

“If I burn the Torah, another the Bible, another the Quran, there will be war here,” stated Ahmad A. “What I wanted to show is that it's not right to do it.”

Though unintentional, he succeeded in showing the neutrality of Swedish law. There was scant outcry from Christians to protect their Scripture, but overall many Swedes are sympathetic to his plea. More than half favor prohibition of the burning of any religious books, up from 42 percent in February.

To do so may require reviving blasphemy laws that were scrapped in the 1970s. Following a similar incident last year, the former prime minister of Sweden stated such acts should be prosecuted as hate speech, lamenting the waste of budget to protect rogue actors. And after this round of international outcry, the government announced that it is currently exploring if such a law can be passed.

But across the European continent, Christian leaders are expressing alarm.

“If you can’t burn the Quran, can you put it in the toilet?” asked Olof Edsinger, general secretary of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance. “There are many ways of desecration, and you can’t stop them all.”

Fully condemning the offense itself, he clarifies that any law—however broadly worded—would be tailored only for the religious community that is offended. The issue is with Muslim reaction, he says, and every limitation shrinks the space for freedom of expression.

It is a hard-won right for Sweden’s evangelicals. Prior to the 1952 Religious Freedom Act, many free church believers joined atheists and other religious nonconformists to seek refuge in the United States. Conversion to Catholicism, for example, was subject to exile until 1858.

“If our culture—and the West in general—bows to outside pressure,” Edsinger said, “it will be a clear step backwards.”

So far, the West is resisting, though the world is not. At the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month, no European nation except Ukraine voted to approve a nonbinding resolution “affirming [Quran burning] shall be prohibited by law.”

It passed, 28 to 7, with 12 abstentions. Put forward by Pakistan and Palestine, 19 Muslim-majority nations joined autocratic China, Cuba, and Vietnam, calling member bodies to “prosecute acts and advocacy of religious hatred that constitute incitement.”

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) criticized the vagueness of the UN resolution.

“International law specifies the criteria—not the acts—for what amounts to hate speech,” said Wissam al-Saliby, a Geneva-based WEA human rights advocacy officer at the UN. “This resolution raises the question of what exactly constitutes forbidden speech.”

The UN’s Rabat Plan of Action already has a six-point criteria, he says, and countries should have worked together until the resolution gained consensus.

The goal, Saliby says, must be to form inclusive communities of welcome for all. And dialogue is necessary, for some European states are starting to restrict many religious believers from the public square.

Some in the Arab world, however, see a double standard.

“When they attack Jewish people, they get legally punished,” stated Mohammad Nokkari, a leading Islamic judge in Beirut. “When they attack homosexuality, they get legally punished. But when it comes to Islam, they have the right to.”

Jon Aalborg, former Church of Norway senior advisor for ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, notes that Balkan, Pakistani, and Somali-background Norwegian Muslims suffer from “very real” excesses of freedom of expression in the form of disparaging insults. But society in general treats them well, he says, and finds it easy to sympathize with them—especially against Quran burning.

But if Sweden revives some aspect of its former blasphemy laws to accommodate Muslims, Aalborg says, it must specifically not outlaw the criticism—even insult—of any religious books or systems of belief, including Christianity.

Like Edsinger, he believes proper legislation will be very tricky to define. But he also sees many in the Muslim world as manipulators, “blatantly attempting to get what they can out of it.” He specifically criticizes Turkey’s president Recep Erdoğan for linking the issue to Sweden’s NATO accession.

Many Islamic leaders have ignored repeated Western statements criticizing the act of desecration. Pakistan’s ambassador nonetheless demanded condemnation as “the least they could do” after the failure to gain full consensus at the UN vote.

And the populist Iraqi cleric who called for mass protests railed against supposed US hypocrisy for condemning his followers’ storming of Sweden’s embassy in Baghdad, but not the act of Islamophobia in Stockholm.

Earlier this week, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation suspended the status of Sweden’s special envoy, asking consideration of the same for any nation that allows desecration of the Quran.

One Swedish imam, writing in a Qatari publication, urged Muslim rethink.

Commending Sweden for 200 years of non-colonizing neutrality, he praised the freedom that not only permitted burning the Quran, but the public collection of funds by a proselytizing group committed to building a mosque in every village.

Muslims, he says, many of whom are calling for the boycott of Sweden, should avoid rupturing relations.

“This humane Swedish society was and is firmly opposed to any attempts to burn the Quran,” stated Idris al-Marrakeshi. “Chief of these elements is the church.”

The Christian Council of Sweden (CCS) signaled its support of Muslims immediately after the first offense. Aggression against any religious community, it stated, harms everyone with religious identity. Beyond issuing simple condemnation, in their highly secularized nation, believers in God must stand side-by-side.

To help convey the level of frustration Muslims have felt over the Quran burnings, CCS theological advisor Jan Eckerdal, a Lutheran minister in the Church of Sweden, points out that comparing it to burning a Bible can be misleading.

While Islam sees a physical copy of its holy book as the literal words of God, Christianity centers the Word on the person of Jesus. The closer comparison, for many believers, would be to burn the Eucharistic bread and wine—representing the very presence of Christ.

Even so, he clarified that the CCS opposes blasphemy laws, and does not demand that Quran burning be banned. But it welcomes police investigation if the act—provocatively performed at a mosque on a major Muslim holiday—constituted a hate crime under existing Swedish law.

And like Marrakeshi, he finds the Muslim-world reaction unfortunate.

“It hides the fact that the majority of Swedes are against the burnings,” said Eckerdal, “and increases precisely the polarization that those who burned the Quran wish to achieve.”

But provocation, properly done, is not always bad, says Leonardo De Chirico.

“Sometimes our prophetic role requires challenging others’ religion in a dramatic way,” said the Italian Evangelical Alliance’s theological commission chair. “But our priestly and royal roles demand respectful and peaceful interaction.”

Against the prophets of Baal, Elijah portrayed a clear and challenging confrontation. Jesus, when cleansing the temple, also theatrically rebuked his religious opponents.

But the burning of the Quran was “stupid,” he says—though it is not the role of the court to prevent it. On the contrary, it is dangerous, and seeking narrow definitions of hate speech risks making every abrasive statement illegal.

It was not until 1948 that Italy’s constitution guaranteed religious freedom.

Recalling the past persecution of evangelicals and the derogatory language still frequent today, De Chirico calls for society to cultivate a principled pluralism, and Christians have a role to play through the “soft” social posture recommended by Miroslav Volf and the “civility” of witness sought by Richard Mouw. In such an environment, he says, acts of religious offense should receive “cultural reprimand.”

Jaume Llenas, the Spanish national coordinator for the Lausanne Movement, cited a colonial-era champion.

Roger Williams, he says, was the American father of religious conscience and church-state separation, who taught that the first tablet of the Ten Commandments must not be enforced by the state. The only way to secure obedience, Llenas summarizes, is effective preaching of the gospel.

Unlike De Chirico, he sees no role for deliberate provocation. But sometimes it will be attributed anyway.

“In countries where there are anti-conversion laws, Christians can be seen as provocateurs for sharing God's love with people of other religions,” Llenas said. “There is a scandal of the gospel that we cannot avoid.”

A Pew Research Center analysis notes 79 nations with blasphemy laws, including 18 of the 20 Middle East and North African countries in the study. In Iraq, for example, the public insult of a symbol or person held sacred by a religious group is punishable with up to three years in prison.

Europe, Llenas says, must not move in that direction. It took centuries to achieve freedom of conscience and expression on the continent, with freedom of religion not granted in Spain until 1978. Minimum regulation maximizes human rights—for Christians and believers of any religion.

But those immigrating to the West have adjustments to make.

“We welcome believers of other religions,” said Llenas. “But they should accept that Europe is a continent where they will not find the same limitations to freedom of expression.”

For now?

Edsinger notes that the historic homogeneity of Swedish society has yielded conflicting levels of public support for basic liberties. Gender equality is secure, for example, registering 96 percent approval according to a 2020 Pew Research Center survey.

Religious freedom, however, esteems heterogeneity. Only 53 percent of Swedes consider it “very important,” one of the lowest levels in Europe. Most people everywhere prefer those like themselves, he said, making this an easier liberty to sacrifice.

As head of the Evangelical Alliance, Edsinger defends religious freedom dearly. His community is often misunderstood and criticized, and pluralism is protection. But with it comes the necessity of allowing insult, even the burning of the Quran.

“The public square must welcome all,” said Edsinger. “After all, people are allowed to be stupid and mean.”

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